To Keep a Cult from Taking Over, An Oregon Town Wants to Go Out of Business

UPDATED 04/19/1982 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 04/19/1982 at 01:00 AM EST

The Big Muddy Ranch, near the hamlet of Antelope in central Oregon, has seen some intriguing sights in its day. Back in 1975 John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn filmed Rooster Cogburn near there. But the 64,229 acres of rock, sagebrush and stunted juniper is now the setting of a showdown stranger than any the Duke envisioned. On one side are the red-garbed disciples of an eccentric spiritual community that has arrived in force. On the other are Antelope's 40 citizens, who have decided to save their town from the newcomers with an unorthodox tactic: They want to abolish it.

The trouble began quietly enough last summer when a Texas landholding company unloaded the large ranch for $6 million. The new owners turned out to be the Rajneesh Foundation International, an India-based cult led by a 50-year-old guru, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Soon 200 Rajneeshies arrived and began clearing land and erecting buildings. As rumors buzzed around town about the group (its members come from 17 countries and include the daughter of Congressman Leo J. Ryan, who was killed at Jonestown), curious Antelope residents attended a get-acquainted party. They were given assurances that the Rajneeshies had little more in mind than to transform the overgrazed spread into an oasis of wheat and barley. "We thought they were a friendly bunch," Mayor Margaret Hill recalls. "Lots of food, lots of free booze—it was a great party."

The good feelings faded fast. Antelope residents discovered that many of the new arrivals had come from an ashram in Poona, India that was reputed to have had nude encounter sessions and outbreaks of herpes and gonorrhea among its 5,000 members. When the Bhagwan himself took up residence in September, the anxiety level increased. His followers appeared at Chamber of Commerce and Kiwanis Club lunches to reassure locals that they had left the wild life of Poona behind them and that the master himself was in seclusion, having taken a vow of silence.

The following month the communards attempted to incorporate the ranch as a private city, only to be blocked by local environmentalists. The Rajneeshies then shifted their attention to Antelope itself. At stake is control of the five seats on the town council and the mayor's office, all unsalaried positions. Cult members could win all the posts in the next election and grant themselves building and zoning permits for commercial enterprises. But in a unique solution to the dilemma, the town council recently passed a resolution to dissolve its 1901 charter and disincorporate. If enough voters agree in an election on April 15, the county, which has a population of about 21,000, will take over Antelope. The Rajneeshies would then be outnumbered in local elections and their expansion plans thwarted.

Victory for either side is not assured. Under Oregon law, any U.S. citizen and resident of the state for more than one day may register on Election Day itself. To date 27 Rajneeshies are on the rolls, but there may be as many as 125 more who qualify living at the ranch. Margaret Hill thinks she can muster as many as 40 townsfolk for the vote.

The cult has bought one-fifth of the town's property, including the general store and café, reopening it as a vegetarian restaurant named Zorba the Buddha. "I don't owe Antelope anything and Antelope don't owe me anything," says Viola Wilson, 72, one of several residents who have sold out so far. "The redcoats wanted my house before the election, and they're the only ones who had the money. God and I are neutral in this. I figure God has put these people here as a test, just to see what we Christians will do."

The residents say their reasons for disbanding are practical. Water rights are critical in Oregon's dry central plateau. Local women held bake sales for three years to raise the $20,000 necessary to drill two wells to provide adequate water for 32 households—and one of them came in dry. The cult's proposed printing plant would require, under state health codes, 222 gallons of water per minute. "The problem of water for the building is insurmountable," insists Mayor Hill. "We hardly have enough now for the town at 45 gallons per minute." The Rajneesh followers counter that their opponents are fired by sheer prejudice. Says devotee Dave Knapp, a/k/a Swami Krishna Deva: "It's like a Southern town in the 1960s disincorporating because the blacks are moving in."

The Bhagwan cult is apparently stronger on finance than theology. Its members include Christians and Jews who practice the rituals of their own faiths while also espousing the master's philosophy of free will, free sex and unconditional love. The sannyasins—as cult members are called—have invested $19 million in the property, which they have renamed Rajneeshpuram ("Expression of Rajneesh" in Hindi). They put up 50 houses, a 300-seat cafeteria, two huge barns and five greenhouses (where they grow their own vegetables). They have purchased an enormous fleet of house trailers, cars, trucks and earth-moving equipment for their endeavors. "We're overwhelmed by the apparently bottomless amount of money they have and by their sheer numbers," town council member Frances Dickinson admits.

At the center of this wealth is the Bhagwan himself, a former journalist and philosophy professor from India. He has written 360 books, which, along with donations, are the group's main source of income. He keeps three Rolls-Royces for his personal use, as well as two private planes. Although his recent vow of silence keeps him from talking to his followers, they line the road on the ranch every afternoon when he goes for a spin in a Rolls—52 miles up the road to the nearest town, where he habitually turns around in a supermarket parking lot and heads back. "When he first got here," Postmaster Bill Dickson recalls, "his driving was so erratic that everyone was scared to death of him. He wrecked one Rolls in a creek. Then he hit a concrete truck. But they gave him a crash course—and today his driving is fine." Perhaps to console their leader for the loss of the car, his followers suspended work on their dining hall last winter to build him a heated indoor swimming pool.

Whatever the outcome of the election, one thing is certain: The feeling of fellowship between the people and Rajneeshpuram has likely been destroyed. "People tell us we're not loving sometimes," says the cult's public relations director, Ma Prem Isabel. "But to be loving does not mean to be stupid or not to have a business sense. People are violating our human rights; we are not going to allow it." All dialogue between the adversaries has stopped. A minor skirmish over a building permit has escalated into a silent war. But, whether or not the town's bid to destroy itself is successful, Antelope residents have reaped one perhaps lasting benefit. "There was always a lot of scrapping going on here," says the postmaster. "It was like one big family fighting. But this thing brought Antelope together. We can cooperate on the important things."

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